Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Stage Beauty 2004 ****

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It’s a dubious honour for a film to be voted, as it was by Phoenix film critics, the most overlooked film of the year. But by the time Richard Eyre’s film got to Phoenix, it was already struggling in the wake of Shakespeare in Love, which pretty much ticked everyone’s literary/period box for a while. That’s a pity because Stage Beauty is an unusually literate drama which has a cool feminist take. Based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, the subject is the ban on women performing on-stage during their reign of King Charles II (Rupert Everett). Maria (Claire Danes) works backstage, but knows she could take the spotlight, which is otherwise occupied by Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), whose female impersonation makes him an ideal Desdemona for Othello. When the King’s attitudes are changed, albeit not for any noble reason, Maria’s career flourishes while Ned’s languishes in the doldrums; the pattern of A Star is Born offers a few amusing parallels. Support is top drawer, with Edward Fox dispensing a couple of choice lines, Tom Wilkinson as Othello (‘I’m not actually black’ he confesses to little attention), Tom Hollander, Ben Chaplin, Alice Eve and Hugh Bonneville making up the backbone of a strong starting eleven. Stage Beauty has quite a pedigree, a BBC production with Robert De Niro amongst the producer, and maybe it proved too highbrow for the masses, yet it’s romantic, acerbic and has something interesting to say about how men perceive women and vice versa. Eyre is seen as something of a national treasure in the UK, and yet his two best films (This and The Ploughman’s Lunch) are arguably his least celebrated. And while Homeland has made Danes a household name, Crudup is awards-worthy in his performance, utterly convincing as a female impersonator. He’s a super actor, always just off the front rank, who really shouldn’t be overlooked by critics or audiences for this kind of peerless work.

 

A Chorus of Disapproval 1989 ***

Alan Ayckbourn’s work as a dramatist hasn’t proved an easy fit with cinema; then again, would you give Michael Winner the chance to make a film version of a cherished project? Winner’s gift for comedy in the 1960’s was substantial, but his touch eluded him after sinking into the mire of Death Wish sequels, and although this is probably the best film of his last two decades as a film-maker, that’s largely because of Ayckbourn’s wordplay and the cast assembled here. The argument between Winner and Ayckborn have been detailed elsewhere; the result is that a clever back-stager about a Scarborough theatre company attempting to stage John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera has been broadened with an unfaithful emphasis on sex. Jeremy Irons is Guy, the businessman who gets involved with the tyrannical director Dafydd (Anthony Hopkins), and ends up sleeping with his wife (Prunella Scales) and the wife of another man; Gareth Hunt and Jenny Seagrove are the swinging couple. The cast are dotted with recognisable thespians, from Richard Briers to Lionel Jeffries, and there are sections of dialogue which feel like Winner hasn’t quite managed to ruin them; the initial sparring between Guy and Dafydd works well, and Irons and Hopkins can’t be accused of phoning in their performances. The picture of provincial British life in the 1980’s is pretty horrible, and that’s very much on the director; the side-lining of modish female talent (Patsy Kensit, Alexandra Pigg) indicates the male-dominance here, and the rampant egotism of an arrogant director who failed to transform material that didn’t need much transforming.

Toast of London 2013-2015 ****

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Netflix has proved an unlikely platform for audiences discovering tv shows that they’d previously spurned; You was something of a small-screen flop before the streaming service relaunched it last Christmas. Channel 4’s Toast of London is a very different animal, but deserving of re-discovery on Netflix UK and US. The humour is very knowing, and somewhat unique; Stephen Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor who has been bumming around the London scene for years; his high opinion of himself is matched only by his low opinion of others, notably rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock). Toast’s agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackirchan) does get him work, but it’s usually pay-the-rent voice-over work that puts him in the orbit of clue-less, drug-addled hipster Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast’s exchanges with all these characters, and with landlord Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), are often agonising but also amusing. From Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London has a wild and experimental edge, with circuitous conversations that end in unexpected ways, plus crude sexual pratfalls mixed with acidic satire of British luvvies. It’s funny, original and is slowly creeping into the mainstream in a way that would make a Toast revival a tasty prospect; a welcome fourth series has been mooted.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80108561?source=35

Synedoche, New York 2008 ***

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The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman left something of a gap; who else could play the central character of this bizarre Charlie Kaufman comedy drama? Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is a hypochondriac and also is struggling with his family relationships; his wife and daughter leave him to go to Berlin while he works on his latest theatrical opus. The production takes years, and while he’s holed up in a vast warehouse, Cotard begins to experience heath issues which he believes might be fatal. Writing and directing for the first time, Kaufman retains the quirks if not the good humour of his earlier work, aided by a strong female cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams. But ultimately it’s Hoffman’s portrait of a creative man at the end of his teacher that proves the most haunting; art and life are intertwined in this story, and in real life, tragedy caught up with Hoffman’s prodigious talent in the worst possible way.

The Happy Prince 2018 ***

princeThe Happy Prince is a thoughtful look at the last years of Oscar Wilde, with Rupert Everett clearly relishing the chance to immerse himself in the role to the point of unrecognisability. It’s generally known that Wilde lay in the gutter in his post-gaol period and looked at the stars, and The Happy Prince doesn’t spare us the details of Wilde’s rather desperate life-style in France and Italy. Grasping for money, paying for sex with minors, unwilling to write and ripping everyone off whenever he can, his genius is only glimpsed in fleeting moments, but the film generally avoids sentimentality. Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson are amongst the support, but it’s clearly a labour of love for writer/director and star Everett, who looks worryingly like Marlon Brando in his death-throes and is well worth seeing in this demanding role.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum 1966 ***

A Broadway hit adapted for the screen with Richard Lester at the helm; after A Hard Days’ night, the British director brought a similar manic energy to the Sondheim-scored musical and even if the result is patchy, it’s an interesting record of the original production, plus a slapstick chariot race. Several generations of comic talent, including Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford, Michael Horden and Jack Gilford, with Lester regular Roy Kinnear plus Brit favourites Frank Thornton and Jon Pertwee in the crowds. Rome is the setting for the familiar story of randy husbands, battle -xe wives and nubile courtesans; it’s clear that the original 1960’s Broadway musical was aimed at a male psyche. A few of the more out-there gags land, notably Keaton being kept largely off-screen as he sprints around Rome; another strange choice from Amazon Instant, Lester’s film is of interest to connoisseurs of vintage comedy, and of course the fabolous animations of Richard Williams, who contributed credits sequences here.